THE HISTORY OF
THE WILLIAMS CENTER
EST / 1922
The Rivoli Theater debuted in Rutherford in April 1922 with a capacity for 2,200 audience members. Built by architect Abram Preiskel and developer Harry Hecht above the Glen Waters pond, the building featured a marble facade, ornate proscenium, and a centerpiece chandelier, made of 62,000 Czechoslovakian crystals. The theater played host to silent films and was a popular stop in the vaudeville circuit. Acts such as Abbott and Costello and the Glenn Miller Orchestra performed under The Rivoli’s signature chandelier, and silent movies starring Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., delighted audiences. The Theater continued operation with brief interruptions until January 1977, when a devastating fire destroyed nearly one third of the building. The theater’s future was in doubt until a group of philanthropists led by Fairleigh Dickinson, Peter and Sally Sammartino, Oscar Schwidetsky, Barry Dancy and Herb Cutter, saved the theater and started the nonprofit Williams Center Project. The theater’s name was changed to the William Carlos Williams Center for the Performing Arts, after the famed poet, doctor, and Rutherford native, and the newly renovated venue opened its doors in 1982.
In 1987, the building was deeded to Bergen County and a lease agreement was reached with the nonprofit group to continue operating the center. The center continued to serve the community as a host to live theater, music shows, movies, and art shows, and functioned as a hub for the community, as many Rutherfordians will remember graduating from Rutherford High School on its stage.
Another setback struck the center in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. In October 2012, Bergen County, the owner of the building, decided to shutter the Newman Theater, the main live stage of the Williams Center with a 642-seat capacity, due to safety concerns. It was determined that the plaster ceiling of the theater might not be stable if exposed to sound levels typical of a live music show.
Despite the financial difficulties due to the closing of the Newman Theater, the Williams Center has enjoyed a renewed vitality recently. Public awareness has been brought to the plight of the center over the past few years, and several new members were added to the Board of Trustees. In 2016, the center was able to upgrade to digital projectors in all 3 cinemas, and Center Cinemas has been showing first-run movies and hosting special events. The center has been active with fundraising events, Open Mic comedy nights, literature readings, live music and film events, as well as hosting the Red Wheelbarrow Poets, who have weekly poetry workshops and monthly poetry readings.